TURNBERRY, Scotland — It was three years ago this week that Tiger Woods ventured onto the dusty links at Royal Liverpool, shunned his driver for itty-bitty fairway woods and walked away with his third claret jug.
He had never played the golf course before, so he hatched a game plan on the fly, laying up in front of the bunkers, blasting long irons hole high, and leaning on his putter to take down the field.
As he did at Royal Liverpool, Woods arrived at Turnberry this week having never played it but knowing that he might be able to attack it bit by bit.
“I think it’s the same,” Woods said Tuesday, comparing Liverpool and Turnberry. “You have to be committed to either putting the ball short of the bunkers or carrying them or skirting past them. You have to make sure you really know what you’re doing, especially with the cross winds in some of these fairways. The last three champions here [Tom Watson ’77, Greg Norman ’86, Nick Price ’94] are some of the best ballstrikers.”
Woods sets that bar now, and the British Open is often where his skill has been the sharpest. In winning at St. Andrews by eight shots in 2000, Woods didn’t find a bunker the entire week. Five years ago, also at St. Andrews, he enjoyed one of his best ballstriking weeks in memory in holding off Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal.
But it was his precision at Liverpool (also known as Hoylake) that could stand as one of the most artful, intelligent performances of his career. While the rest of the field was whaling away with drivers — and often finding bunkers and going out of bounds — Woods had the patience to carve out a masterpiece with his irons.
“At Hoylake, the game plan was to probably hit about four or five [drivers],” said Woods, who ended up hitting only one the entire week. He missed the fairway.
“As the ground got faster and faster and faster, my 2-iron and 3-wood were going over 300 yards,” Woods said. “You get to a point where you can’t really control how far the ball is going to go, so the driver, it didn’t really utilize it much.”
Even though rain is in the forecast at Turnberry, which could slow down the fairways, Woods and his peers see a similar strategy unfolding on a course where bunkers dot the fairways like freckles.
Bunkers on links courses are like water hazards, as the saying goes. They are basically an automatic one-shot penalty.
“Tiger’s probably not going to hit more than two or three drivers a round,” Watson predicted. “Look at what he did at Hoylake.”
Added Greg Norman: “You only have to venture out of the fairway 9 feet, 10 feet, and you might lose your ball. I think that’s an indication not too many drivers are going to be used. There are going to be a lot of long irons into some of these greens, yardage between 160, 190, 200, so to attack the flags when they start putting them behind these bunkers is going to be tough as well.”
With Padraig Harrington’s form sketchy (his word), Phil Mickelson absent, and long-time rivals like Garcia, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els winless for a long stretch, Woods’s prospects seem stronger than usual. He arrives having won three PGA Tour events, each in his last event before a major. He finished tied for sixth at both the Masters and the U.S. Open, where a few sloppy holes kept him from the heart of contention.
“Granted, I haven’t won a major, but I’ve come close,” said Woods, who missed nearly nine months due to knee surgery. “But to have three wins, realistically, looking at my situation at the beginning of the year, I wouldn’t have thought that.”
If win No. 4 of 2009 — and major No. 15 — is to be claimed this week, Woods won’t subdue Turnberry with the thundering drives he used to peel off at Augusta National and Pebble Beach.
If he’s between clubs off the tee, expect Woods to throttle back, sacrificing distance for safety, and then gearing up again with precise iron shots.
“That’s what’s so hard about links golf,” Woods said. “It’s hard to tell you I’m going to hit 10 drivers or I’m going to hit zero drivers. I don’t know.”
Ten drivers or zero drivers? The guess here is closer to zero.